It's Hip To Be Square

Back in the day, serious film shooters had to decide between the 3:2 rectangular 35mm format and the much larger 2¼-inch square. Legions of photography and art students learned the basics of composition on a square-shootin’, 2¼-inch Yashica D twin-lens reflex camera. Yes, long before Beta vs. VHS, there was a very different, but very real format war.

Less expensive and smaller in size, 35mm cameras and film were overall more popular, but many professionals opted for the bigger 6×6-inch, 120-roll film models. Larger negatives meant better prints, all else being equal. Brands like Hasselblad and Rolleiflex built legendary reputations for outstanding quality and superb optics, and they were well deserved. Many advanced amateurs owned both 35mm and 2¼ cameras, and those who did realized one thing: Composing a square picture isn’t the same as composing a rectangle.

You can engage in the same square-shooting experience yourself. Many modern digital cameras, including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, Nikon D800, Ricoh GR Digital IV and several others, offer a variety of aspect ratios, typically, 3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and, yes, 1:1. Dial in the 1:1 format, and you’re shooting square.

Being a square shooter requires a different discipline and may challenge your natural sense of design. That’s a good thing—we can all benefit from an occasional shake-up of the creative process. When you no longer have to consider whether a scene should be captured vertically or horizontally because you have no choice, you start to see the world differently.

Some people maintain that the popular design concept of the Rule of Thirds doesn’t apply with a square. That’s not always true, but regardless, readers of DPP probably have a good sense of the fact that such a rule is little more than a guideline, and it’s a guideline that doesn’t always apply in any format. Other conventional design principles like leading lines still apply, of course, but not quite in the same way. Achieving balance on a square palette—in this case, an LCD monitor—is an altogether different trick that may take some trial and error until you get the hang of it. One of the great benefits of the square is that it engages the viewer differently. Instead of creating a natural side-to-side or top-to-bottom flow across a frame, the square tends to make people move around the frame. Elements of particular interest or emphasis in the frame will create pauses or anchor points, but your eye will quickly move on from one of those anchor points and resume its scan around the image in a circular fashion. The square format also lends itself to images with simple, graphic shapes.

One could crop a 16:9, 4:3 or 3:2 image into a square, but cropping isn’t the same as the experience of seeing square and composing a square image directly in the camera. Square image files are smaller, but the "pixels-per-inch" resolution is the same, even though the captured image size is smaller. For example, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G6 is capable of producing 4608×3456-pixel images (16 megapixels), but when shooting 1:1, the dimensions change to 3456×3456 (12 megapixels).

Because square images ignore the extreme corners of the sensor, areas where lens performance is almost always the worst, 1:1 shots are generally sharper. And by using only the sweet spot in the middle of the lens, vignetting is nonexistent. This unexpected benefit makes it more practical to use polarizers and other filters that could otherwise darken the corners of the frame.

Try shooting square. It’s more than just putting blinders on your camera. It’s a whole new way to examine your little quadrilateral corner of the world.

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